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By Benjamin Harbaugh

On December 18th, 2019, the U.S. Department of State released its annual list of countries that engage in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,”[1] called Countries of Particular Concern (CPC).[2] They also released their Special Watch List (SWL), which designates countries that commit serious offenses below the level of a CPC offender. This year, there were two interesting developments noticeable in the release: one country was downgraded positively from a CPC to the SWL, and four countries were added to the SWL.[3]

The movement on these two lists sends an important signal to other countries; persecution does not go unnoticed. When the International Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1998, one of its goals was to call out countries that committed serious acts of religious persecution in hopes that international pressure would instigate positive change.[4]

Over the two decades that the Office of International Religious Freedom has delivered its annual list, a handful of countries have not responded to their CPC designation and have continued to persecute religious adherents year over year. This year, Sudan’s downgrade from CPC to SWL status is an excellent example of the fact that the U.S. pays attention not only to violations but to positive change as well.

Sudan had quite the year in 2019. Their ruthless septuagenarian leader, Omar al-Bashir, was deposed in widespread protests in the spring of 2019.[5] Al-Bashir led an authoritarian state that allowed no dissension from his proscribed form of Islam. Christians and other religious minorities were regularly persecuted, and Sudan remained a staple on religious persecution indices.[6], [7]

With al-Bashir deposed hopes ran high and prayers were offered that Sudan’s repressive laws would be repealed and replaced.[8] Positive signs began to emerge within months of al-Bashir’s ouster. In October, the transitional ruling Sovereign Council appointed the first Coptic Christian to the council, an unthinkable act only months earlier.[9]

Growing tolerance towards Christianity was on full display after the State Department’s announcement that Sudan had moved down to the SWL. Within a week of the statement, Sudanese Christians were walking through Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, wearing shirts that read “I Love Jesus.”[10] The State Department’s recognition of Sudan’s increased religious freedom was an empowering force for the Sudanese Christians who have endured decades of suffering.

Unfortunately, repression is growing worse elsewhere. Three other countries were upgraded to SWL status: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Nigeria.

Of these, Nigeria was particularly worrying. Open Doors, a Christian human rights monitor, lists Nigeria as the twelfth worst persecutor of Christians in the world.[11] Violence is seemingly non-stop, with close to 2,000 Christians being killed by radical Islamic groups in 2019.[12] In addition to ongoing violence from non-state actors, tribal discrimination and unwilling government officials often exacerbate religious persecution.

The State Department’s designation of Nigeria as a SWL merely recognizes the harsh reality for Christians living under constant threat. If Nigeria continues down its current path, it could be designated as a CPC and face serious economic sanctions and increased international pressure.

Observers hope that Sudan will become an example for newly minted SWL countries like Nigeria. By improving Sudan’s status and lowering Nigeria’s, the State Department is signaling that countries will reap what they sow. If countries like Nigeria, Cuba and Nicaragua address the violation of their citizens’ rights they too could improve their standing.

Just as Christians are now openly celebrating in Khartoum, one hopes that the progress they are enjoying today will be soon seen all around the world, from Abuja to Havana to Managua and beyond.

Benjamin Harbaugh is an intern in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State and a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between government action and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for Christians around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates

[1] U.S. Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom. United States Takes Action Against Violators of Religious Freedom, Press Statement (2019).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eric Patterson, Politics in a Religious World: Building a Religiously Informed U.S. Foreign Policy (New York New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011) 113.

[5] BBC. “Omar al-Bashir ousted: How Sudan got here,” April 11, (2019).

[6] Open Doors. Sudan Report, (2019).

[7] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report, page 58 (2019).

[8] Crux Now. “There is ‘hope’ for Sudan’s Christians after al-Bashir’s ouster, advocate says,” April 17, (2019).

[9] Voice of America. “Sudan’s Copts See Hope in Appointment of First Christian,” October 9, (2019).

[10] Christianity Today. “Sudan Lets Christians March for Jesus Again,” December 28, (2019).

[11] Open Doors. Nigeria Report, (2019).

[12] International Christian Concern. “Over 1,000 Nigerian Christians Killed in Religiously Motivated Attacks in 2019,” December 19, (2019).